Saturday, October 13, 2007

Where the Great would not be constrained by the small

"I chose something different. I chose the Impossible..."

What's the first thing any self-respecting Geek does when he/she gets his/her hands on a credit card? That's right: that Geek walks all the way to the computer, and buys Bioshock on Steam. Bioshock, because it's too compelling not to buy on the premise alone; Steam, because the boxed version comes with worse DRM. To a lot of people, I doubt that "less worse" DRM really counts for much, though. I have a number of friends who were burned by Steam, and have since foresworn its use, and I expect that a number of people are simply ideologically opposed to the idea of stringent control of media usage. Personally, I've had only minor issues with Steam, and it's a small price to pay for the exquisite design to be found in Valve's games (while many publishers now also use Steam as a distribution vector, most of my Steam-affiliated games are from the founder's catalogue). Have I sold out, become some approved-content-whore? Perhaps, but I'm at least one rung up the ladder from rock-bottom, which is to say the HDCP crowd. I own no Blu-Ray, no HD-DVD, and if I planned to (HD Serenity is a compelling argument...) I would first take pains to procure software capable of circumventing the evil that is HDCP. Of course, I DO NOT endorse using such software for malicious purposes. Bootleggers and software/movie pirates are 1) disgracing the Pirate brand, and 2) not helping those of us who just want to be able to use our fairly-purchased media without the fucking ball-and-chain which the plutocrats have slapped upon us USING YOUR EXISTENCE AS JUSTIFICATION.

I can't decide if it's ironic or appropriate that Bioshock is invariably linked with one DRM system or another, when [key character] Andrew Ryan and his classical-liberalistic/laissez-faire-capitalistic views are so prevalent in the game world. I'm leaning towards highly appropriate, for as much as Ryan believes in the invisible hand (and therefore a lack of regulation), he is adamant that the producer of a good or service should have control over its useage. "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?" is a rhetorical question posed during the player's opening bathysphere ride to the city of Rapture. Later, the chief botanist of the city mocks Ryan's tone when commenting upon the fact that what would under any other economic system be a public park is in Rapture an attraction to be paid for. Ryan's stance on this issue leads me to believe that had the inventors of Rapture devised a way for the city's artists to maintain total control of transmitted works (which would not be out-of-place in the cannon), Ryan would have promoted it without a second thought. I suppose, then, that Bioshock publisher 2K Games is to be commended for the ideological consistency which they in their greed have brought to the game. I wonder...if someone made a game about a Communist Utopia-gone-wrong, and 2K published it, would they arrange it so as to belong to everyone?

I'm not holding out hope, but the notion still tickles me.

"A City, where the artist would not fear the censor..."

I have yet to play through the entirety of Bioshock, but I'm certainly getting there. I'm sure that prior to purchasing the game I'd read it described as a "First-Person Roleplaying Game", which isn't an optimal description. It is true that plasmids and gene tonics allow you to customize your character to suit your fighting/play style. It's true that the story is deep, and more than comparable to that of Half-Life 2, Prey, or FEAR. It is true that the decision to harvest or rescue the little sisters does present the player with a moral choice. There are vending machines to hack, there's ammo to buy, you can collect inventory items and craft them, you can upgrade your weapons...but for all of this novelty and interaction, Bioshock remains "merely" an uncharacteristically deep shooter. This is no accident, of course: I recall hearing lead designer Ken Levine make some remarks about how dialogue trees were rather constrictive, and that giving the player 100% freedom to express themselves via weapons and plasmids was the preferred solution. I'm not sure that I completely agree with that assessment, but if one looks at the exceedingly-well-written-yet-still-looping dialogue trees of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, it's true that even well-implemented solutions of that sort have their limitations.

Bioshock begins with a bang, or - more accurately - a crash. The game's true brilliance lies in the fact that before you are finished playing the game, EVERY SINGLE EVENT that takes place in the opening sequence takes on a new and sinister significance. EVERYTHING, from details such as the note attached to the main character's birthday(?) present handled in the game's opening seconds, to major actions such as the acquisition of your first weapons and plasmids is coloured by a fantastically disturbing revelation which occurs during the game's late-middle section (a guess, as I have yet to finish the game). This is one of two major gameplay shifts which I have noted in the game. The first is when the game's very linear first level gives way to one of many larger, more explorable levels. The first level lacks the security cameras, turrets, vending machines, plasmid stations, etc. that are to be found in the later levels, and consequently has a very different feel from the remainder of the game. It's a fairly subtle change, one that I can only liken to the difference between playing the FEAR demo, and the full game*. The second is a plot-related shift, and is so incredibly executed that to spoil the details of the scenes during which the transition occurs should be a punishable offence. Really, I found it that impressive. It's not original, being more than a little cribbed from a certain source (which shall remain nameless), but it is a consummate melding of a play on the tropes of FPS heroes** (which FEAR - NOT the nameless source - also did well) with a neck-breaking 180-degree plot twist. The only weak point in the storytelling is that the main character rarely meets another principal character face-to-face. The writing is top-notch, but the lack of any Half-Life 2 interaction with other characters makes me appreciate Valve's work on Episodes 1 and 2 all the more. I wonder if Irrational/2K Boston shouldn't have lisenced the Source Engine - as opposed to Unreal Engine 3 - recoded the water effects, and then made use of the fantastic character animation tools.

* ie. the "Amnesiac hero" cliché, used to reconcile the character's having a past with the player's not having experienced it. Bioshock actually establishes your character's past without amnesia, but let's just say that memory is...malleable. Other Genre tropes are also ruthlessly exploited.

** Your results may differ, but I found that while the demo was made up of chunks of the final game's levels, those pieces were used in a very different context between demo and full game. Play both yourself, and you'll see what I mean: they feel as different as is possible for a game and its demo to feel.

Bioshock's twisting story, and limitlessly cool setting are really the backbone of the game, which I find more than a little amusing: a behind-the-scenes podcast featuring Ken Levine had him talking about how both were built around the gameplay, and not vice-versa. While you might be under the impression that any game which has you splicing your genes to project fire or electricity, gain telekinesis, or create decoys of yourself would have some AWESOME combat, this isn't always the case. Enemies enjoy greater health as the game goes on, but more and more advanced plasmids are not on par. Granted, it would be rather pointless if the two advanced concurrently, but it's plain stupid and frustrating when you set an enemy ablaze, and the fire goes out before they're dead. You can dump clips of machine gun ammo, or the entire magazine of a fully upgraded shotgun into them, and not always manage a kill. The early game isn't much better, since you have too few plasmids and weapons to do all that much. For some periods in the game's midst I did cease to dread combat against the hordes of mad mutants, for only there is ammunition plentiful, and only there are their health values fair. That being said, the enemies aren't without issue; splicers generally scream, mutter, or sing the same lines, and face/body/clothing repeat heavily. I realize that a voice cast of hundreds is not practical in any game - nor is a modelling team of such proportions - but hearing the same "Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so..." song in the same voice from dozens of splicers dressed the same way just KILLS your immersion - the greatest sin when it comes to Bioshock. Immersion in the dreamlike underwater world of Rapture is what truly drives the entire game. The game's original setting, and second-to-none art direction are why I am still even tempted to play.

Final Verdict? Someone should build a real art-deco city on the mid-atlantic seafloor, because that would be bitchin'!

Oh, wait, the game? Buy it if you love a well-written game. If you like fair and balanced combat situations, buy Orange Box and play Half-Life 2: Episode 2. For that matter, Ep2 is one in a series of extremely well-written games. Still, the Half-Life saga doesn't feature runaway genetic engineering, nor any underwater cities, art-deco or otherwise.

In one sentence, please?

"Buy Bioshock for Rapture, because that's what it does best"

Tune in later, because I have plans to comment upon the (pitiful) Ontario election and referendum of this past Wednesday.



GoldMatenes said...

I really need to play Bioshock. I'm trying to see what limits my new laptop has in terms of gaming... 1GB RAM just might not be enough.

CheeseLikeSubstance said...

It is almost certainly wise to invest in a second gig of RAM. it's fairly cheap, and especially with Windows' absurd memory usage (Even more with, god help us, Vista), the increase in system performance is definitely noticeable.

As for Bioshock, I installed it this morning, and as of yet have seen the opening sequence, killed four splicers, and been knocked loopy by a plasmid injection. The verdict?

Best opening sequence for any game short of Oblivion's Patrick-Stuart enhanced video masterpiece. (And it's close). I appreciate taking a page out of games like HL2 and Morrowind, and keeping the tutorial to a minimum. The symbolism of the icons on the walls of the tunnels and bathysphere is excellent, and I look forward to replaying the first five minutes a few times to ensure that I missed nothing. I hope the rest of the game lives up to the first ten minutes.

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